Temper the stress of exam time



Ah the stress of April and May – SOL’s, AP’s, SAT’s …..the alphabet continues. Exams, projects and more.

Today I was greeted by  a good-morning text from that college kid who was up all night studying for exams. Last week,  a client  shared that at the end of her Spring Break, she was so anxious about the numerous AP exams ahead of her that she was unable to enjoy her last weekend of vacation.  My sophomore in high school is spending the end of April reviewing for all of the upcoming assessments that occur in May. (My confusion lies in the fact that  Fairfax County schools  have been extended until June 25, and yet, this high schooler claims that they are done learning new material in the third week in April.  Once the exams are done the  Finding Nemo  continuous feed begins in many of the classrooms while the kids sleep at their desks…don’t get me started)

So, how do we help the kids with the stress and the reviews and the push for high grades and high scores?

If I have learned anything, I have learned about the diminishing returns of sitting on one’s butt and staring at a page in a book.  Sadly, I didn’t really learn it  until graduate school, thus have wasted many an hour in the library getting nothing done.

I encourage students to spend a finite amount of time (1 1/2 -2 hours depending on the student) focusing  hard and then take a break.  Get up, take a walk, have a snack for a brief period of time (20-30 minutes) and then return to the studying a bit fresh and renewed.    So many of us have spent six hours at a desk but only gotten half as much work done.

Sleep.  It’s a good thing.  How can we operate at our best either studying or performing at an exam if our body is in overdrive from not sleeping?

Food.  That helps too. Especially  a breakfast before an exam.  I remember being told for best results to eat eggs for breakfast the morning of the SAT’s;  the green smoothie phase had yet to be enacted in the early eighties. Blend away my friends, our current SAT takers need their kale.

Other things that have been helpful are group studying. Not the kind where your basement is filled with teens and closed backpacks while the XBOX is on.  But,  two or three kids seriously quizzing one another and talking about the material can really help kids learn the content, retain the information and stay focused.  I might encourage some popcorn or pizza to add to the focus.

And, please, remind your kids that it is all okay.  All that matters is that they do their best.  The students that are super high stressed need reassurance that it is just a test.  It is an assessment of what they know at the time that they sit for the exam.  The tests are not self-esteem measures, although too often some kids see them as so.   A child who may struggle academically may view a hard test or a low grade as another failure on their part; this should be avoided at all cost.

Academics and grades are one part of who we are.  I hope that we all remember to remind our kids that they are special and unique people despite their GPA’s;  this can be easily forgotten amidst the stress of the moment.


The Boomerang Teen Part 2


I said I would return with suggestions to avoid having your teen flop back into the house for an extended stay in the middle of a semester.  I make no guarantees, sometimes a one-way ticket home is inevitable and necessary, but here are some thoughts on how to prepare for a successful flight out of the nest.

I love the idea of sleep away camp. Any reader that has spotted one of my summer posts is aware of my proclivity towards all things camp.  I have promoted camp for infinite reasons (friendship, bonding, summer structure etc.) and one of the biggest reasons is for kids to get a taste of  being away from home.  There are many kinds of  camps that can meet this objective;   sports camps, Scout camps, academic camps and arts camps and they vary in length from a few days to an entire summer.

Camps provide a sense of independence for kids with the safety net of responsible adults who are not their parents to guide them.  At camp kids learn to manage their own clothes, toiletries and meals without mom and dad micromanaging all the details. If they miss a night of teeth brushing or lose a sock (or hundreds), it is all part of the process of learning to have some independence.  I have found that the kids that have spent time away from home for a period of time during their middle and high school years have had the easiest transition to college and have had  less risk for the boomerang swing.

When a teen has increased responsibility throughout high school, he will have an easier transition to college.  Freshmen start slowly, perhaps getting  more opportunities to socialize with peers in groups before they are juniors and driving independently. Many juniors and seniors obtain part-time jobs which teach them responsibility, time management and a bit about finances.   Extra-curricula activities also help a teen with independence; there are clubs with responsibilities, teams with obligations and bands and theater with commitments that the teen must learn to balance with academic and other expectations.

One of my biggest selling points with my clients and their parents is for the kids to become responsible for their own academics.  A freshman in high school should manage her own schedule by knowing when she has an exam, when papers are due and the status of her grades.  I encourage parents to be supportive and helpful WHEN ASKED, but to allow the student to manage his own work load.  The more autonomy a high school student has, the more success will occur in college.

Parents often tell me that their teen will fail if the parent lets go of the academic reins.  The best advice I ever got was at a back-to-school night when my oldest child’s teacher said “Parents, you have already completed second grade, it is their turn.”  Yes, it is their turn; their turn to learn,  their turn to succeed and their turn to fail.  I constantly stress to these parents that the fall is easier when they fail junior year before they are legal adults and still in high school than when they are half a state or country away, paying thousands of dollars for tuition and suddenly realizing that they don’t know how to manage their work load without mom leading the way. (Students with learning disabilities or attention challenges do require more parental supervision.  It is important to strike a balance between over-doing and supporting the student; not an easy task for many families).

My last thought is to address mental health issues if and when they present themselves.  If a child is predisposed to anxiety or depression and has struggled throughout her adolescence with symptoms of sadness, feeling overwhelmed or anger management issues, please GET HER HELP.   Sending a child off to college who is struggling emotionally can be a set-up for failure.  College is inherently stressful with its huge life transitions and rigorous academics.  If your teen seems to be struggling, getting him the help he needs before he leaves home can arm him with the extra tools he may need to have a successful college experience.

Again, sometimes things happen.  Unplanned trauma, anxiety or homesickness can occur; kids come home and it is okay.  There is always another path and other options, so don’t fret.

One last thought, have your kids learn to do their own laundry……if nothing else it will make for a more pleasant aromatic experience for the roommate.

What may really be going on with your high school senior


He got in to ________.    She was deferred from ___________.    He was rejected from ________.   Two more applications to submit.    Anyone know how to fill out the FAFSA?

This is what I have been hearing from seniors in high school and their parents for the past couple of weeks.  The SATs/ACTs/ABCs, the essays, the waiting and that email (in my day it was a thin or thick letter) that elicits exaltation or deep sadness within one click of the mouse.  And, these are just the ones that applied early or rolling admission – this will continue over  the next few months until the big push in April when all colleges will have admitted their incoming freshman class.

I have worked with many seniors in high school.  It is such a pivotal time. In some ways it is a ticket out, a ticket to freedom and a move towards independence.  In many ways it is a very scary time.  As much as the  seniors are flexing their muscles to be on their own, there is something to be said for home cooking, clean clothes and mom and dad lurking around to ensure that life tasks have been checked off, paid for and handled.

Early in my career I worked in high schools and observed the precarious nature of that status of “senior”.  The seniors were the leaders of the school, captains of the teams  and enjoyed privileges of the upper-most upperclassmen (definitely the best parking spots and lunch tables). And yet, in my office they presented as anxious and vulnerable. Would they get in to a college? Would they be able to handle the work load, the transition and the independence?

It is normal to feel apprehensive.  I continually reassure my senior clients that they are not alone in these fears.  They have been under so much pressure since junior year jumping  through all of the “get into college” hoops that they have barely had a moment to ponder what it all means.

Enter second semester senior year, also known as “senioritis” or “senior slump”.   The applications have been submitted; some have heard from schools and some are still waiting.  Grades matter, but not as much as  before.  There is time again to pause, reflect and realize “HOLY COW – I AM GOING TO GRADUATE”.

Seniors may experience this as a sudden shock, a slow building of anxiety or depression or  via other symptoms like withdrawal from friends or a drop in grades.   Some of my clients have suddenly brought home D’s and F’s after a high school career of A’s and B’s.  I talk to them frankly about self-sabatoge; if they have anxiety about graduation and leaving home, a handful of F’s could easily upend that plan without having to admit “I’m nervous about the next step”. It can be easier to crash and burn through that last English credit than have to face the reality that this graduation thing is actually going to happen.

We adults often forget how emotional and challenging this time can be.  Teachers, parents and other adults act as  cheerleaders raving about graduation and the exciting changes that are coming. But the awareness of these trepidatious months can be really helpful;  attend to your seniors, acknowledge that this is a big time of transition and it is okay to feel uneasy or anxious.  They may just appreciate it enough to stick around for dinner one night this week.

“Oh the thinks you can think” Seussical the Musical


This weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Herndon High School production of Seussical the Musical.  The show was great; the actors, the set, the costumes  and the choreography were brilliant.  It was a really happy show and the teens looked like they were having as much fun performing for us as we, the  audience, were watching them on stage.

While donning my “therapist hat” for a moment during the performance I thought about all the talent and confidence, as well as the insecurity and anxiety, inhabiting the teens before me.  Of course, I was unable to detect any blatant weakness.  The kids were well prepared, beautifully made-up and top-notch performers.  But, I know teenagers and I know that underneath all of the make-up and costumes on stage or  behind the North Face jackets and Uggs in class breed a host of anxieties and fears.

Am I good enough? Smart enough? Thin enough? Cool enough? Popular enough? Rich enough? Athletic enough? Talented enough?……

My therapist observations felt bittersweet.  I loved the fact that these kids were putting themselves out there on stage, I loved that they danced and sang and wore fun and silly costumes for all to see. I loved that they seemed really happy and excited about the performance.

I worry about their own self-criticism.  I feel for the kids that were disappointed for not getting the part they wanted, and even more so for the kids that aren’t confident enough to even try-out for a show.

Being a teenager is such a mixed bag – as if putting all  the highs and lows of life in a blender and blasting them together in a full speed whirl.

I want to praise the cast and crew for a fabulous show and hope  you all know how wonderful you are both with and without the makeup and glitz.

Summer Assignments

As I wrote a few weeks ago, I was fully aware that summer was petering out and we were about to be slammed into back-to-school chaos.  The sky is darkening, the winds are blowing and I see the storm school buses on the horizon.  Yes, lunches are packed, back packs are ready and MY SON IS STILL DOING HIS SUMMER ASSIGNMENTS.

He is a rising 10th grader who was assigned a math packet, a 550 page book to read and:

The Summer Assignment for AP World History & Geography has three parts:

Part I Read the following selections from World Civilizations:

The Global Experience (6th Edition) and summarize. Part I: The Rise of Agriculture and Agricultural Civilizations (pages 2-7) Part II: The Classical Period, 1000 BCE – 500 CE (pages 34-39) Part III: The Postclassical Era (pages 130-135) Part IV: The World Shrinks, 1450-1750 (pages 354-359) Part V: Industrialization and Western Global Hegemony, 1750-1914 (pages 520-525) Part VI: The 20th Century in World History (pages 650-657)

Part II Read Chapters 31, 32, 33 & 34 of World Civilizations: The Global Experience (6th edition), and using the HEADINGS AND SUBHEADINGS in each chapter, take notes/outline. PLEASE INCLUDE NOTES ON THE THINKING HISTORICALLY FOR EACH CHAPTER AS WELL.

Part III Define the following terms and include a sentence about their historical significance. DO NOT INCLUDE THE TERMS IN THE NOTES.

Then 51 terms are listed, I will spare you the details.

AP or Basic Studies, why do they have to do what looks like half of a semester’s worth of work during the summer?  I could rant on and on about all of these kids’ summer trips, camps, work schedules which don’t necessarily allow the time for cumbersome workloads, but that isn’t even the point.

What about SUMMER BREAK?

These kids work hard all year long.  They have  the added pressure to keep up with their studies throughout Winter and Spring Breaks.  I see many teenage clients on a regular basis due to anxiety and stress that they experience during the busy school year. I don’t understand why they can’t just get a rest during the summer.

Another rant I have which piggybacks on the Summer Assignment rant is that in May when SOL’s (Standard of Learning  Exams in the State of Virginia) are finished, the students spend many a class watching Finding Nemo and Shrek.  I wish I were kidding; last spring my oldest son complained that he had to watch the same movie in two different classes on the same day.  I wonder why the self-taught chapters that they are grinding through now can’t somehow be taught in lieu of Disney movie week during the academic day in high school.

I feel badly about writing this negativity (and posting it) as we jump into the new school year.  Facebook is covered with posts about new learning opportunities, excited kindergarteners and fresh beginnings.  But, these summer assignments are a reality that are troublesome; how can these high schoolers feel any sense of excitement or positive energy about starting a new school year after spending the past several weeks with their heads in the books?

The scene at my dining room table

The scene at my dining room table

The Sitter Search


I am at IT again.  I have been doing this for eighteen years and IT is never easy. What is IT you ask? IT is the eternal search for a responsible adult that can care for your children while you are at work.

Early on it was the MOST stressful part of my parenting experience other than my kids getting sick, which, you can ask my friends,  we had plenty of (how many nebulizers can one family own?)   I agonized each time over leaving my infants with anyone other than me.  The first baby, particularly, was difficult. We were new parents, learning how to do this thing called ‘parenting’; three short months later, maternity leave was over and someone had to watch this baby.

In the midst of the exhaustion and shock of having this newborn, new daddy and I got to seek daycare.  There were fancy agencies to find you the best nanny (for hundreds of dollars to register), you could risk taking out an ad in the newspaper and pray for Mary Poppins, or you could get on a waiting list at a day care center.  The internet was not yet at our fingertips, thus no Craig’s List, Sitter City or any other form of www.

For some reason, once we finally hired someone they were short-termers.  I want to believe that it was because I was part-time and that was a harder niche to fill (rather than my kids were bratty). Remember the  show Murphy Brown with Candice Bergen where  each episode she had a new secretary?  That was the story of our day care – we went through about twelve babysitters in half as many years.  I wish I could tell you how many times I called my husband after walking in the house on a Thursday evening to say “she quit again”.

Then we found M.  M saved us; not only did she love my kids, but she added stability to our somewhat chaotic home, the best being  when she got fed up with my linen closet she would re-fold all the towels.  M worked for us for six years and raised my youngest (we often wonder who my youngest is really asking for when she calls “mommy”).  M is part of our family, so much so that when she announced her pregnancy, my husband said “we are going to be grandparents”, and her three year old now proudly calls me “Gramma Yorie”.

I wish I could say that after M left us for a full-time job that our headaches were gone. Sure,  as my kids got older, the fear of leaving them became less.  They could speak and keep me abreast of what was going on at home while I was busily seeing clients.  But, I still had to find someone that was responsible, kind and was a careful driver (I long since gave up on laundry or linen closet maintenance).

I found myself today paying, again, for Sitter City. Luckily, I have already had a phone interview with a college student looking for some after-school work.  Can I trust her, will the kids like her, will she be able to find the dance studio where kid #3 spends most of her time?

I think of all the new  moms  embarking on this journey that I have travelled so many times.  I can feel their anxiety and fears in my stomach as my own; for I have been there and know their struggle.  I have had many clients in this spot and have been grateful that I could fully empathize with them.

For anyone that is on the quest for the right day care, particularly as the school year starts, please know that I GET IT.  Your fears, your tears and your worries are valid and normal;  I would be happy to share them with you if you need, feel free to contact me.

“That Kid”

Aly Raisman, Gaby Douglas, Missy Franklin….

I watched them and so many  more young, strong athletes from countries all over the world in the Olympics during these past two weeks.    These teenage athletes have been perfecting their sport for years: practice, sacrifices, stress and pressure all leading  up to their moment of glory at the Olympic Games.

Whether these teen athletes are going home with a medal or simply  the thrill of participating in the Olympics,  they were part of a handful of athletes that make it that far. The hundreds of thousands of athletes in high schools today may not all be Olympic caliber, but many of them certainly contribute their own share of sweat, commitment and sacrifice to their particular sport.  They also experience incredible pressures from a myriad of sources be it coaches, parents, teachers and/or peers.

This past year I have worked with many teenage athletes seeking therapy. A teenage lacrosse player with panic attacks, an anxious softball player experimenting with drugs and alcohol and an anxious field hockey player whose grades are slipping.

Recently, a parent of a new client was describing his daughter to  me.  She played varsity soccer as a freshman, finished her freshman year with a 3.9 GPA and has many friends and an intact family.   He said “she’s ‘That Kid’.”  I had the privilege of meeting “That Kid” at our first  therapy session shortly after that initial phone call inquiry. She is beautiful, polite, kind and sad, very sad.  She said she doesn’t know who her friends are, feels a tremendous amount of pressure to perform on the field and feels very lonely.

All of  “Those Kids” experience a lot of pressure.  They are usually adorable, kind, smart and talented.  Teachers and coaches all love them.  All of my athlete clients have shared similar stories;  pressure to make the team happy, fear of letting down the coach, needing to keep their grades up and make their parents happy.

One of the most common things I have heard from “That Kid” is that they feel that they can’t be good enough;  they feel so much pressure that even when they are the star player on the team, they struggle to see their strengths. I have heard these athletes tell me after a great game that they are afraid that they won’t be able to do it again and will disappoint the coach and the team.  They rarely ride on their successes and instead stress over what they perceive to be their inevitable failure.
In therapy we work on building self-confidence, relaxation techniques and reality testing.  “How will you know when you are successful?”  “What has to happen for you to know that you are good enough?”
A great book that I have been using with these clients is “The Anxiety Workbook for Teens” .  It educates the teens about anxiety, what it is and how they can learn to function without this constant underlying angst.
If nothing else, the message that I want these teenagers to hear is that life doesn’t have to be this hard, painful or anxiety ridden and that it will get better.  I want them to be able to reach for some hope, to understand that although the world can feel overwhelming right now, there is a light on the other side.
If you know a teen that is struggling either with athletic pressures or anxiety, please share that message with them:  things can get better and life just shouldn’t have to be this difficult.
As always, I am open to help.    You think any of those Gold Medalists need one of my cards?  🙂